There are three people in my house: One of us (me) eats anything, another of us eats anything in small portions, and a third who only eats white bread, apple sauce and things with cheese on them. Preferably slices of white bread with cheese. Looking at our grocery bills, we easily spend $100 a week, most weeks. So this weekend, I spent a little time figuring out why the heck does my little family of three spend so much? It has a lot to do with food waste.
I know a lot of our food waste is because I like to have fresh foods. It’s certainly not my husband. My husband doesn’t inherently spend a lot on groceries, and his tendency is to buy frozen or canned food. No joke: when we were dating, Jon once offered to cook lunch. Lunch was what was in inventory and consisted of a soup made of ramen noodles, a can of tuna, vegetable oil, and some Texas Pete. I know it must have been love, because I actually ate it.
Ten years later, my standards for lunch are a little bit higher and include things that you wouldn’t use to stock a bomb shelter. I buy stuff that can go bad because it’s healthier and it tastes better, so sometimes we waste food. While I don’t think we can completely eliminate food waste, I know we can do some things to reduce it.
And we need to reduce our food waste. You know how much food we waste in the US?
- Around 20 pounds per person per month.
- Around 30-40% of our total supply.
- About 133 billion pounds.
- Around $161 billion.
We even spend about $1 billion just to get rid of food waste, which ends up in landfills and creates methane. That’s a lot of wasted food. Considering there are also a lot of hungry people, food waste just seems wrong on multiple levels.
Change 1: Getting Organized
I’ve looked at several articles on saving money on groceries, and organizing your food appears to be the first step. If you organize your food, you know what you have. This helps you eat stuff before it goes bad, and keeps you from buying things you already have that you don’t need. This makes sense to me, but our family has never been overly concerned with organizing things. We had a lot of cleaning up to do this weekend to get us started with reducing our waste.
So, I started with cleaning up, and thinking about all of the food we throw away. We clean out our fridge on a regular basis. At least, we clean certain things out of the refrigerator, as we notice they have gone bad. For instance, earlier this week we threw out half a carton of strawberries, some soup we had cooked over a week ago, and some old pizza. This weekend, though, we had a total inventory overhaul. I cleaned out my fridge completely. I cleaned out my pantry. I cleaned out my freezer. And as I cleaned out, I made a conscious effort to think about what I was throwing out: a giant garbage bag full of food that was stale, out of date, or was never going to be eaten. In the process, I’ve discovered some things about how I should (and shouldn’t) shop for groceries for our family.
10 Other Changes I Should Make to Reduce Food Waste
- There’s one category that seems to drive the frequency of our grocery trips: dairy. We go through at least 2 gallons of milk a week and a half gallon of half-and-half. Almost all of our trips to the store seem to be because we need milk. I never just buy milk. I buy other stuff too. Once I buy, we’re more likely to eat the new food and ignore the old. Even though it’s more expensive to buy milk at the corner store, it might save us money and reduce our waste when milk is all we need. It’s worth a try.
- I can buy 3 bananas, and we’ll eat 3 bananas and want more. I can buy 4 bananas, and at least half go bad. I can buy 5 bananas, and we’ll only eat one. If anyone can explain why this is true, I would appreciate it. Despite my confusion on why, obviously I need to never buy more than 3 bananas.
- Speaking of fruit, I like having fruit around for my daughter to choose as a healthy snack. She will eat apples, if I peel them completely. If I spring for raspberries (expensive!) or have it on my own plate, she might eat it. Otherwise she never chooses fresh fruit. If the option is fresh fruit or go hungry, she will pick hungry. If I put fruit in her lunchbox, it comes back home. I need to admit that when I buy fruit, it is probably for my own consumption and adjust my purchases accordingly.
- I can buy fresh carrots, onions and mushrooms and we will eat them before they go bad. I can buy fresh yellow squash and zucchini, and we will probably eat them. Any other vegetable? If I don’t cook it the day I buy it or the day after, forget it. Either I need to buy it with an immediate plan in place or leave it alone. When I feel the need for more variety, frozen vegetables are the way to go.
- Ditto with fish. If I don’t cook fish right away, it gets shoved to the back of the freezer, never to be seen again. I buy fish because it’s healthy to eat fish, but it’s not a good idea for me to buy it if I’m not going to actually cook it. Unless I have a definite meal in mind, I’m better off sticking to the proteins I cook regularly: eggs, chicken and pork.
- I easily add $20 to my grocery bill if I go shopping with my daughter. And she loves to go shopping with me. And she loves to ask for things that she does not end up eating. I can say “No” to every sweet or salty snack (okay, usually she gets at least one sweet or salty snack), and I still end up buying extra stuff. If she asks for anything healthy, I usually give in hoping that she will actually eat something other than macaroni or crackers. Most of the time, if she asks me for something new, she doesn’t actually like it enough to eat it. From now on, I will only buy the healthy and quasi-healthy stuff she asks for that I know she actually will eat: apple sauce, apples, and broccoli with cheese. (The snacks are less of a food waste problem and more of a “my waist” problem, and I need to not take her so I buy less of that too.)
- When I cook healthy, I tend to cook way too much. Case in point: the soup I mentioned earlier. The soup itself wasn’t so bad from a food usage perspective, as it was mostly made up of leftover chicken, noodles, onions, carrots and mushrooms. It tasted good…the first two days. Our daughter even ate it twice, tiny bowls of soup that only barely covered the bottom. But every time we pulled it out, my husband added more broth to it. The amount in the pot never seemed to go down. Sure enough, by the end of the week, no one could face the soup and we ended up throwing it out. Yes, we could have frozen it. Frozen it and never eaten it again, based on the 4 containers of soup I tossed from my freezer. Nope, I just need to make smaller portions of everything.
- We have way too much cereal. We had 9 open boxes, I had to throw out 3. The other two people in my family love to mix up cereals and then eat them. In and of itself, it’s not a terrible thing. But they are only eating a small portion of each cereal, and the types my husband eats my daughter will not touch (and vice versa). Any given box tends to get stale before it’s finished. I either need to put my foot down on the amount of cereal boxes that can be open any given time, or come up with alternate uses for breakfast cereal.
- We have a regular shelf and 3 side shelves of condiments. Why? We use mayo, ketchup, worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, ranch dressing and HP Sauce. That’s about it. No, I’m not particularly worried that the random bottles of olives, pickles, salad dressings and sauces will go bad, but why do I keep buying them? Is it because I like an overcrowded fridge?
- Cleaning out my pantry I found peppermint bark from Christmas, chocolate bunnies and peeps from Easter, and a bunch of Laffy Taffy that had been in my daughter’s birthday piñata in June. Except for the piñata fillings, we didn’t buy any of it. I’m not too upset about throwing away candy that no one wanted, but I need a strategy in mind for Halloween. Any suggestions?
There you have it. Eleven things I need to change in our food buying so that our food waste (and cost) is reduced. Most of them start from change #1, getting organized. So many of my mistakes were about not really thinking about our total food inventory before we went shopping. Staying organized will help a lot with that.
But some of the changes are very much about my family and the food we don’t eat. I need to be about accepting that my ideals of what I want my family to eat aren’t in line with the reality of what we actually eat. We should eat more vegetables, but we don’t. We should eat more fish, but we don’t. Even when I fix healthy meals, healthy leftovers tend to get thrown away. Maybe recognizing this problem will help us deal with it as a family, but in the meantime my little family of three won’t be wasting as much food or money if we buy our fresh food in much smaller quantities.
What’s your strategy for curbing food waste? Do you find that your impulses to eat healthy result in more waste, or have you figured out how to get your family to eat healthy options? Please share in the comments.
Jon says he will share the recipe for Texas Tuna Soup for anyone who wants it.
Blueberry Image courtesy of Michelle Meiklejohn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Strawberry Lemon Image courtesy of Graeme Weatherston at FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Muesli bowl Image courtesy of phasinphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net